Flight club: fly your own plane

Written by Lesley Young

Carol Denman couldn’t have asked for a clearer day. The president of Atchison & Denman Inc., a court reporting firm in Toronto, was speeding through the sky in her spry Piper Cherokee 140. This trip — a solo 300-mile flight with two stops — was the final step in her quest to get her pilot’s licence. Giddy with anticipation and nerves, she radioed her first stop, 15 nautical miles south of Sudbury, Ont. Seconds later, another pilot radioed the tower with approximately the same co-ordinates. Denman panicked. Looking out her window, she spotted a fellow student flying beside her. Since he had left the Parry Sound, Ont. airport before her, Denman couldn’t believe she’d caught up to him so fast. “Then I remembered. I had a bigger engine and a quicker plane,” she says. “I jammed in the throttle. I knew I had to speed up and land well ahead of him.”

Such moments are part of the challenge of flying. To be sure, piloting a plane is not for everyone. Getting your licence takes time, money and grit (landings are said to have the same excruciating inconsistency as a golf swing). And, yes, it’s risky. But that makes entrepreneurs far better suited to flying than the average nine-to-fiver. And what a thrill.

Though Denman, now 56, earned her wings four years ago, every takeoff and landing she makes represents a chance to conquer her fears. During training, Denman got so nervous that she often thought about quitting, and she can recall giving herself more than a few pep talks in the washroom at the Parry Sound hangar at which she trained. But the joy of being in control, soaring above the Earth and defying gravity with the help of technology and training is intoxicating. “Flying is like working out,” says Denman. “It pumps me up. It makes me use all my muscles and my nerves. And I feel relaxed afterwards.”

There are other perks, too: besides respect from her clients, Denman enjoys improved road skills and the ability to breeze through formerly labyrinthian projects (most recently, setting up a high-definition television with a universal remote). She also appreciates a speedier, more scenic commute to the cottage, which now take place high above congested roads.

Aspiring pilots have two licensing options: a recreational pilot’s permit or a pilot’s licence. Each designation comes with its own training requirements and restrictions. A pilot’s licence requires 45 hours of flight time, plus 40 hours of ground school on such topics as Canadian aviation regulations, aerodynamics and the theory of flight. A recreational permit is a quicker route to getting airborne, requiring just half the flying time and no ground school, but limits you to flying in daylight and with a single passenger, among other restrictions (see Licence options, right). To acquire either, you’ll need to pass a Transport Canada written exam and a test flight with an approved instructor.

Still, most students average about 75 hours of in-air training before they’re ready to get their wings, says Stu Digiulio, a flight instructor at Island Air Flight School and Charters in Toronto. That’s because they often leave too much time between flights, and waste a lot of time getting up to speed with their instructors on the tarmac. “Ideally, you want to be able to fly at least twice a week during training,” he says. Of course, that’s not always realistic for time-pressed entrepreneurs. Denman flew whenever she could manage to escape from the office — five times in one week, none the next. In all, it took Denman 18 months and 85 hours of in-air time.

Fly more frequently and you can expect to get licensed in six to eight months, says Spence Howard, manager of dispatch services at the Calgary Flight Club. To increase the likelihood of more in-flight training, choose a flight school, flying club or a private instructor who works out of a nearby airport.

Time wasn’t a consideration for Ken Wray, president of Future Green Inc., a golf-course landscaper based in Schomberg, Ont. Wray began training for his recreational permit three years ago. While he’d like to take to the skies more often, he’s comfortable with his current pace of flying just once every couple of months. “I love the mental workout,” he says. “You use totally different skills than you do in the day. It pushes you to the limit.” Wray has almost completed the licensing requirements, and is already looking forward to giving prospective clients a bird’s-eye view of their own fairways.

Obtaining a recreational permit costs a minimum of about $4,500, while you’ll shell out at least $6,500 for your private pilot’s licence (the more air time you incur, the higher the cost). Once you’re licensed, you can get into the air by renting a plane, co-owning or buying an aircraft outright (see The cost of being airborne, page 81). Denman purchased her Piper Cherokee at the get-go, allowing her to train at her convenience. Now, she takes it up several times a week, primarily for recreation.

You’ll also need to refresh your training about every three months by flying with an instructor or taking a course, says Darren Petrusiak, chief flight instructor at Interlake International Pilot Training in Gimli, Man.

Denman enjoys being a part of the aviation community. She has made new friends, and enjoys talking, reading and learning everything she can about flying. And although flying a plane requires lifelong learning, you can’t beat the “rad” factor that comes with being a pilot. Recently, Denman took up two of her 25-year-old son’s friends. “They just thought I was the coolest mom on the planet.”

The cost of being airborne

Rent a plane

Pay anywhere from $100/hour for a small plane such as a Cessna 150 to $300/hour for a Piper Seminole with all the bells and whistles. Prices will fluctuate with fuel costs.

Fractional aircraft ownership

Offset the cost of ownership by sharing a plane with other pilots. The price is upward of $50,000 annually, plus monthly maintenance and an hourly flying charge.

Build your own plane

Purchase an airplane kit and put it together yourself. While it can take time, you’ll get a modern design at a much lower cost. Prices start at about $40,000. You’ll need to have the completed craft certified.

Buy your own plane

Expect to pay anywhere from $70,000 for a middle-range, slightly older plane such as a Cessna 172, to $500,000 for a top-of-the-line new single engine Cirrus SR22. Extras include: hangar fees of $150/month; insurance, which can be upward of $2,500/year; maintenance and fuel costs.

Licence options

Recreational pilot permit

Allows you to: fly a single-engine plane anywhere in Canada during the day with one passenger; you cannot add ratings such as night flying.


Medical certificate

25 hours flight time (15 hours of dual-instruction; 10 hours of solo flight time)

Pass Transport Canada’s written exam and a flight test with an approved Transport Canada examiner

Minimum cost: $4,500

Private pilot licence

Allows you to: fly a single-engine plane anywhere in the world (still need local licence validation) with up to the legal limit of passengers for your aircraft.


Medical certificate (must be updated every two to five years, depending on your age)

40 hours ground school; 45 hours flight time (17 hours of dual instruction; 12 hours solo flight time)

Pass Transport Canada’s written exam (with minimum 60%) and flight test with an approved Transport Canada examiner.

Minimum cost: $6,500

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